Starfield COEX Mall, Seoul
Located in the posh Gangnam district, Starfield COEX Mall is known as the largest underground mall in Asia. It’s been around since 1979 but has undergone numerous renovations. The latest makeover is meant to represent “The Unfolding Sky”, emphasizing ease of flow and generous use of natural light.
Despite all the updates and remodeling, it has stayed true to its roots as a convention and exhibition center and an underground shopping complex. Today, the mall houses hundreds of stores — covering everything from independent brands to luxury labels, both local and international — and restaurants. It’s also home to the COEX Aquarium, Megabox Cineplex and a Seven Luck Casino. But perhaps its most famous attraction is the made-for- Instagram Starfield Library. This beautiful open library is found right at the heart of COEX Mall, and its 13-meter-high, gorgeously lit shelves that are stacked with over 50,000 books and magazines are sure to make you gasp in awe.
Another attraction is SMTown COEX Artium, where fans of Girls’ Generation, SHINee, Super Junior, Red Velvet and other SM Entertainment hallyu stars can make a pilgrimage and enjoy what is basically a shrine to their favorite K-pop idols. They can buy fan merch, try the K-pop-themed snacks at the café, watch hologram shows, actual concerts or live shows, take AR photos with their idols, attend fan-meets or check out costumes, props and other memorabilia at the SMTown Museum. Sadly, there have been reports that the venue may soon be closing permanently, so if you’re a K-pop fan, it’s best to schedule a visit ASAP.
Finally, don’t leave without heading over to the east side of the mall for a photo op with the “Gangnam Style” sculpture. Dedicated to Psy’s hit song, which introduced Gangnam to the rest of the world, the 5.2m-tall bronze hands are meant to represent the popular horse-riding dance move from the music video. Stand underneath the sculpture and the song will automatically play. Dancing is optional… but highly encouraged.
Lotte World Mall, Seoul
Meet the mother of all Lotte malls — Lotte World Mall in Seoul’s Songpa district. A little more out of the way than other Lotte malls, it’s still worth making the trip for what it has to offer. It’s a “fourth-generation” shopping center that puts an emphasis on experience.
Department store Avenuel has all the Korean and international luxury brands, like Dior, Sulwhasoo, YSL, Ferragamo and so on, and the largest Lotte Duty Free in Korea (the second largest in Asia and third largest in the world), where premium-brand items, cosmetics and Korean snacks and souvenirs are sold tax-free.
Within the mall, there are even more local and global retail brands, but it’s the food scene on the fifth and sixth floors that’s worth checking out. At Seoul Seoul 3080, which recreates 1930s to 1980s Seoul, it’s all about traditional Korean food. At 29 Street, on the other hand, shoppers can take their pick from different international cuisines — Chinese, Japanese or Vietnamese, to name a few.
Aside from shopping and dining, there’s so much more to see and experience: There’s the Lotte World Aquarium, where you can marvel at the country’s longest underwater tunnel and the wide range of aquatic animals, from piranhas to sea lions and belugas. For a little art and culture, there’s the Lotte Concert Hall, Avenuel Art Hall and Lotte Museum of Art.
Another popular attraction is Seoul Sky, which is located on floors 117 to 123 of Lotte World Tower and provides a stunning 360-degree view of the city. Business manager Penny Cabral travels to Seoul often, and visited Seoul Sky on her most recent trip. “Towering at 500 meters high, with a glass-bottomed floor, the observation deck presents the best panoramic view of Seoul. And the world’s fastest elevator transports you to the deck within a minute!” she says.
If theme parks are more your thing, drop by Lotte World, adjacent to — and different from — Lotte World Mall, for Lotte World Adventure, one of the biggest indoor theme parks in the world. For Lotte World Magic Island, just walk right across to Seokchon Lake. Whether or not you’re interested in going to see Magic Island, though, a side trip to Seokchon Lake is not a bad idea, especially in the spring when the cherry blossoms are in full bloom.
The sheer size of the Lotte World Mall complex and Lotte World can be overwhelming, so it’s best to come prepared. Before making your way there, decide on what attractions you want to see and try to map out their locations.
Terminal 21 Asok, Bangkok
How do you stand out in a city where there are scores of malls and markets? You do something distinctive. At the airport-themed Terminal 21 mall in Bangkok, where each floor is inspired by a different city, traveling the world is as easy as riding an escalator. Destinations include the Caribbean, Rome, Paris, Tokyo, London, Istanbul, San Francisco and Hollywood.
“The mall is super Instagrammable because it has replicas of the Golden Gate Bridge, a street in Tokyo [and more]. Even the restrooms [are] themed,” says art director Hazel Arizo, who was introduced to the mall by her husband, who used to live in Bangkok. The themes have little to do with the more than 600 shops found in the mall, though, and are purely for aesthetics. For example, the London-themed second floor, designed to reflect familiar London sights like Underground signs and the city’s unmistakable red double-decker buses, is the floor for men’s wear. The Tokyo-themed floor, where shoppers walk under Japanese lanterns and pass through torii gates, houses women’s fashion. And the two floors that represent San Francisco, complete with that Golden Gate Bridge replica, are for restaurants and cafés.
In any case, they’re committed: The mall concierges are dressed like flight attendants and the signs near escalators are reminiscent of the flight information display boards that you see at airports. “When you ask for the WiFi password, it comes in a piece of paper that looks like a boarding pass!” says Hazel.
Another reason to visit Terminal 21 is the food court, which feeds more than your ’Gram. In fact, for Belle Yambao, a traveler who always makes it a point to drop by Terminal 21 when in Bangkok, the food court — called Pier 21 — is the standout. “The food is really affordable, and you get great variety. My favorite pad thai and tom yum are both from Pier 21. It can get crowded at mealtimes, but it’s worth it — better than food from restos,” she says.
It’s no wonder, since Pier 21 is considered one of Bangkok’s best food courts, where choices range from local favorites to international fare. We hear nothing but good things about the mango sticky rice, so make sure you leave room for this popular Thai dessert when you drop by. “I think it’s nice to have Terminal 21 in your itinerary if you’re looking for a one-stop kind of place. There are also lots of foreign brands and local shops if you need to buy [gifts for people back home],” Hazel says.
Adds Belle, “It has a pretty unique concept, and if you love taking selfies, you’ll enjoy wandering around [here]. The highlight for me was really the food, though.”
Eslite Spectrum Songyan Store, Taipei
Here’s a mall that offers far more than just retail therapy; it lobbies for art and culture and promotes Taiwan’s local artists and designers. Hailed as one of the world’s coolest department stores by CNN in 2016, Eslite Spectrum is unlike your usual mall. And not just because Eslite is firstly a bookstore chain.
“Eslite is one of Taiwan’s leading bookstore chains, but the four-storey Eslite Spectrum Songyan Store carries tons more than the tomes you’ll find on the top floor,” says Micah Sulit, a writer from Manila who names Taiwan as her favorite Asian destination to visit. “It showcases Taiwanese craftsmanship and design, whether in fashion, lifestyle products or arts and crafts. There are foreign brands too.”
At Eslite Spectrum, you can shop for trendy fashion pieces by local designers and find unique lifestyle products that would make fantastic gifts and souvenirs. And at this experiential retail mall, as Micah points out, you don’t only get to buy local handicrafts, you also get the chance to watch crafting demonstrations and even participate in creative workshops yourself.
“My favorite place in the store is the level dedicated to Craft & Creations, where you’ll find workshops ranging from jewelry stamping to glass blowing! It was very cool to see all those craft stations in a department store,” says Micah.
When you’re ready to take a break, head on over to the Tea with Books level on the topmost floor. Here, you can browse the huge collection of books in the Eslite bookstore, sit down with a cup of tea from one of the many tea shops and enjoy a view of the Songshan Cultural and Creative Park next door.
Like Taiwan’s other cultural parks, Songshan, which was converted from a tobacco factory into one of Taipei’s creative hubs, is an incubator for creativity and the entrepreneurial spirt. According to its official website, the park “is not designed with a commercial focus, but rather, its mission is to kindle creativity and innovation”. Its aim is to “nurture creative talents and energy”. Today, the space and structures in the park are used for exhibits, conventions and art shows. Sharing the same creative zeal and goal to put local craftsmanship front and center, Eslite Spectrum Songyan Store is right at home in the Songshan Cultural and Creative Park complex.
SM City Tianjin, Tianjin
The Philippines has begun to export supermall concepts abroad via SM Prime Holdings, which has so far built seven supermalls in China. The latest of these, SM City Tianjin in Tianjin (half an hour from Beijing by high-speed rail), is the third largest in the world.
The building is made up of three structures that look like a flower in bloom when seen from above. It is meant to represent growth and new opportunities, explains Steven Tan, SM Supermalls’ chief operating officer. “Each wing is named after [one of ] the basic elements — water, wood, fire and metal.”
Greenbelt Mall, Makati
In the Philippines — where, not coincidentally, three of the world’s largest malls are found — shopping malls often take the place of parks and other public spaces. Developers have embraced that reality, and have built retail spaces that often serve as focal points for civic and social life.
A prime example is Greenbelt Mall, found in the middle of the bustling steel-and-concrete central business district of Makati City. The 31-year-old development has grown into a sprawling five-building shopping complex with a 2.8-hectare garden that features a koi pond, a lagoon, Zen gardens, sculptures by notable Filipino artists and even a large chapel — the Sto Niño de Paz — set right smack in the middle. First-time visitors who go on a weekend will be able to see for themselves how locals flock to the chapel for Mass and then melt away to one of the mall’s many restaurants for Sunday dinner.
This story first appeared in the October 2019 issue of Smile magazine.